2015 Contest Winner Interviews
You can find the winning story and runner up of this year’s Psychopomp Magazine Short Fiction award in the Summer 2015 issue, available online now. Below you’ll find interviews with both writers, Jaclyn Watterson and Lisa Nohner.
Jaclyn Watterson, author of 2015 Psychopomp Magazine Short Fiction Award Winner “Charlie’s Kidney”
Psychopomp Magazine: You were the Fiction Editor at Quarterly West. Do you feel that your role as an editor has influenced your role as a writer and reader?
Jaclyn Watterson: I was a Fiction Editor at Quarterly West for three years. I held this position because I wanted to be a part of the literary community at large, to serve my fellow readers and writers in some capacity. But I held this position, too, because I am selfish. Editors know there is nothing like the joy, the rush, of being one of the first people to read a crisp new voice or a glittering work that no one has published yet. This happens only rarely—most recently for me with John Maradik’s “The Day Waves Came,” which we published in Issue 85 of Quarterly West. I read this story, and immediately I thought, My god. YES! This is the best thing that can happen to a reader or writer, and especially to an editor. It’s also what I want to do with my own writing: every time I start a new project, I’m trying to blow my own mind. I want to surprise myself, and I want language to transform me every time. I want to write, and I want to think, My god. YES!
PM: You have a PhD from the University of Utah, and you’re a teacher. Can you talk about your relationship with scholarship and art and how you see the two converging?
JW: Scholarship and art, or critical and creative writing, are simply different genres. Each has its own set of conventions, and the most interesting stuff happens when writers and practitioners find ways to subvert or even annihilate those conventions. As a teacher of creative writing, I’m always surprised by how much my students already know about, for example, narrative structure and conventions—even when they’ve never taken a creative writing class before. Narrative is an evolutionary tool, and as humans we are all innately capable of constructing it. As a writer and a teacher, it’s my job to make that construction artful.
PM: Why Charles Habsburg? Talk about the origins of this story. Is reimagining/ riffing on history something that is of particular interest to you?
JW: With this particular story, the title came first. Several years ago, the phrase “Charlie’s kidney” came to me, and I started obsessing over it—first for the sound, and then the idea of someone else’s organ, this necessary component of life that is hidden from view, but that is close to us all the time. Think about it: your lover has two kidneys, and you’ve never even seen them! Likely, you have never seen your own organs! So I started with that, and I wrote a story called “Charlie’s Kidney,” which, at the time, had nothing to do with the Habsburg woes. It was a terrible story. I locked it away pretty soon after writing it, and moved on to other projects. But I still felt haunted by those words: Charlie’s kidney. Years later, due to various social and scholastic circumstances, I began to obsess over Charles II of Spain. (Yes, I have always been interested in history, because here are all these bizarre narratives up for grabs—anyone with the imagination and desire and privilege can write history however they like it!) I read a lot about the sad and amazing circumstances of Charles Habsburg’s life: how his tongue was too large for his mouth, making it difficult for him to eat or speak; how his mother and father (who were actually uncle and niece) were as genetically similar to one another as if they had been brother and sister; how amidst all the pressure and with access to everything, he could not produce a single heir for his vast and crumbling empire. For me, this is a more compelling image of the prince than the one pushed on me when I was a girl. And it was the image that rescued “Charlie’s Kidney,” gave weight and shape to my original and vague yearnings after the phrase. So when I fell in love with Charles Habsburg, I went back to that old title and completely rewrote the story. I think it’s better this time.
PM: How would you categorize your story? What, in your terms, is experimental or non-traditional literature?
JW: “Charlie’s Kidney” is a lot more traditional than much of my other writing. It takes a narrative form, and is pretty clearly a feminist response to the classic courtship and marriage story. As one reader told me, the story itself is nothing to write home about. Anything that is good in this story is in the sentences. And that is my access point to so-called experimental writing. Language. To me, any good writing is necessarily experimental, because what are we, as writers, doing with language if not stretching it to its limits and experimenting with it—trying to get it to transform reality? And most literature that has become traditional or canonical was experimental, a break with tradition, when it was published. (Take a look at Tristram Shandy or Wuthering Heights or Nightwood or Sula, for just a few examples.) A lot of different kinds of writing are lumped together as experimental, simply because they don’t easily fit into another category. What these various forms or subgenres have in common, at their best, is that they say no to the patriarchy of linear, one-dimensional time, no to the suppression and oppression of the other, no to simplification of all the mystery and nuance and vastness of experience. Experimental writing says yes to the margins, to possibility, and to complexity. It says yes to finding new ways to exist and commune through language.
PM: What would you say your primary influences are (and not just in terms of literature)?
JW: My grandmother, animals, Milford, Connecticut, the horror genre, weather.
PM: Describe your writing and revision process.
JW: The way I wrote “Charlie’s Kidney” is pretty typical: some phrase or sentence catches my imagination, and I begin to obsess. And I push it, and I try to blow my mind, to come out the other end of the writing thinking and being differently than I was before. When I revise, I cut out everything that doesn’t serve those ends. I read the piece over and over and over again, silently, quietly, whispering, loudly, to an audience. I repeat sentences in my sleep and in the shower and while walking through the grocery store. And when I can’t remember a sentence, or when I remember it without a little thrill, I know there’s something wrong with it. For me, writing begins and ends with language. But I’m trying to change, because this is hard on my psyche. And it makes writing very, very slow. For my next project, I’m trying to think more about larger forms. My first book manuscript is made of sentences, and I would like the second to be made of passages—spells, if you will.
PM: What are you reading now?
JW: Yoko Ono has been in the news a lot lately, and that’s inspired me to (re)read Grapefruit, which is a book I recommend to anyone who is interested in experimental writing—or art or thought or living. I’m also excited about Rachel Levy’s A Book So Red and Susan McCarty’s Anatomies, two delightfully surprising new books by former colleagues of mine, and I just finished Stephen Graham Jones’s After the People Lights Have Gone Off, a fantastic collection of horrors.
Lisa Nohner, author of 2015 Psychopomp Magazine Short Fiction Award Runner-Up Editors’ Choice “Scales”
Psychopomp Magazine: Describe the origins of this particular story. Why merpeople? Are folklore, fairytale, and the mythic recurring fascinations for you?
Lisa Nohner: “Scales” originated within the confines of a male dominated MFA workshop; one that largely favored realism. It was, unsurprisingly, met with a great deal of resistance. Lots of claims that the prince’s function was too singular—he existed, my colleagues argued, only to perish. Ironically, I was delighted by that criticism. After all, in the fairytale genre, women exist primarily as domestic tragedies or villains. Why not even the score? Plus, I had spent some time entrenched in horror theory and had also recently discovered the Gurlesque. Not really fancying myself a poet, I sought to utilize themes of the Gurlesque (violence, kitsch, femininity, and popculture) within my fiction.
Merpeople, or mermaids, are pretty interesting mythologically. You see a lot of hyper feminine, even optimistic artwork featuring mermaids, which I find sort of darkly comedic. I mean, they’re among the most sinister of female monsters that Odysseus and his crew encounters. For all their beauty and grace, they have the power to brainwash people with their song. Which is, in a way, exactly what Disney Fairytales do to children . . .
Like any girl born in the 1980s, Disney’s The Little Mermaid had an appreciable impact on my childhood. The worst thing you could do, during a pool party, was assign another little girl the role of Ursula. Ooh! Ursula with her purple skin and smoldering eyes, her ample bosom and her many tentacles. How we hated her! How we longed for tiny bodies and purple bras and long, impossibly bouncy red hair.
And then I grew up.
As an adult, I came to understand that there’s greater utility and power in being a Cecaelian (or, the octopus equivalent of the mermaid) than there is in being a princess. The true violence of the fairytale lay in pitting women against women. And more specifically, in villifying women with power. In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, the Sea Witch is hardly a villain! The worst violence of the story occurs when the Little Mermaid murders herself instead of the man who infantilizes her, and is then sentenced to 300 years of child-care with the promise that perhaps someday, if she can stop all the children in the world from crying, she may be granted eternal life. Disney attempts to mitigate this brutality by softening the blow with marriage, but Ariel’s implied loss of autonomy is another kind of suicide, when you think about it. It’s a troubling story. And it’s a story that has, in its various incarnations, subtly informed the aspirations and ideals of many women.
I guess I was thinking of those women when I wrote “Scales.” My mermaid, my protagonist—she wants the one thing that Andersen’s mermaid couldn’t have: Eternal Life. Immortality. She wants what I want: to find all the tongueless, former mermaids roaming the world, and hand them a fishbone blade.
As for myth, folklore, and the fairytale, their inherent violence, tragedy and magic work nicely with horror, which remains my favorite genre. I’ve written a few other short pieces featuring princesses with blood on their hands. With any luck, it won’t be long before I publish a few more.
PM: You received your MFA from New Mexico State and currently teach at Louisiana State. How have these academic experiences influenced your role as a writer and reader?
LN: Well, New Mexico State University blessed me with some amazing mentors—among them, author Lily Hoang, poet Connie Voisinne, and professor Laura Williams. These instructors were not only very encouraging, but they also taught me an array of experimental techniques that effectively enriched the possibilities for my fiction. They introduced me to incredible writers like Kate Bernheimer and Lydia Yuknavitch, and the scholars I love like Sue Short and Aviva Briefel. In terms of reading the creative work of my peers and students, I’d say NMSU taught me to read for possibilities and successes. To never stop digging at the core of what a character wants.
Living in Louisiana is, as I’m sure you can imagine, a far cry from life in the quiet part of the desert. Baton Rouge is like my own personal Twilight Zone or Eerie Indiana. I’ve met working mediums and self-proclaimed psychics, and every Tuesday a man in a black Cadillac with tinted windows drives down my street with a Jason Voorhees mask dangling in his rear view mirror. My apartment complex was plagued with a mysterious infestation that left me so bamboozled, I spent about two months acting like The Frog Brothers proofing the house for vampires at sun down. In short, I love it. There’s no shortage of weird shit to capture on a page.
Louisiana State University is a wonderful place to work. My colleagues are supportive and enthusiastic. My students are bright and kind and fun to work with. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve taught a Horror Lit class and it exposed me to what today’s teens are afraid of—something every aspiring horror author ought to know.
PM: How does copywriting and engaging in projects like writing/editing for the Magic: The Gathering Strategy Board Game inform/influence your fiction? Can you talk bit about some of these other projects and how you got involved with Magic?
LN: If anything, copywriting probably influences my teaching more than my fiction—It makes rhetorical analysis a little more transparent. I’m not a copywriter anymore, but I suppose I could be, if the need arose. It was just kind of a bummer sometimes. I remember there was some nightmare checklist you had to review before submitting a piece of copy—like “Did you appeal to the reader’s insecurities?” “Did you tell the reader they’re going to die?” “Did you tell the reader they’re hideous and unlovable?” I mean, not in those exact words, but you get the gist. I guess copywriting also helped me appreciate the plight of a few Haruki Murakami characters in greater depth. But mostly, I was blessed to experience the world of marketing in that it shoved me back into the arms of academia, where I intend to stay until I die, if at all possible.
I guess it’s kind of a nonsequitor but during my time in copywriting, I stopped reading everything except Bret Easton Ellis. Ironically, Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park is the book that pushed me to apply to LSU. As for the Magic project—I’ve never played Magic. Card games have never really been my thing. However, a good friend of mine, Alex Stephenson, asked me to edit the storyline for a Magic-based card game he was working on. He provided the scaffolding: the basic plot, setting and characters. Then, my job was essentially “set dressing.” I amplified the language, the imagery and expanded on the characters and their relationships. In some ways, it was a little bit like writing fanfiction. I enjoy collaborating on such projects when I’m teaching: I sort of view it as a writer’s rehearsal of sorts. I get to do all the fun things I love when writing, without the added stress of worrying about plot and structure. I have also done some writing for artists, both creative and professional. I’ve written short pieces that accompany paintings, and some biographies etc. Any writing, I’m pretty sure, is good for a writer. Greases the wheels, you know. Plus it’s easier to write promotional materials for work you believe in than for the latest, greatest soap dispenser.
As of June, I just finished a couple chapters for an upcoming collection on the cinema of Rob Zombie. And there’s talk of co-editing another film book in the works.
PM: You’re also working on a horror novel. Can you tell us about that? Is this your first attempt at a longer work?
LN: Oh man, “My Life in the House that Lead Built” is the really poorly chosen working title for this piece I’m working on right now. I’m pretty scared to use the word “novel” because my back starts to hurt and I start craving Sleepy Time Tea during the day to mitigate the anxiety. I’ve written a novel-length work before, but it’s yet to be tightened up. I needed some distance from it before diving back in. Yes, “My Life” is supposed to be a novel, but I’m trying to think of it as little interstitial chapters until I’m ballsy enough to really recognize it for the amount of work it’s going to take. I have an enormous fear of failure and tend to psychologically flagellate myself when I fail to meet my goals, so I’m making my goals bite-sized until the piece picks up some momentum.
It’s basically a modular story that takes place in Minnesota during the late 1980s. It’s about a neighborhood plagued by kidnappings. It’s kind of a love story. With monsters.
PM: Describe your process for short vs. long work.
LN: Short work is pretty straight forward: Handwrite 3-10 pages, begin the computerized Draft, complete, Workshop, Re-draft. Sit. Re-draft. Submit. Short work begins with an image and a mood and then spirals off from there, but it’s easily confined to twenty pages because it grapples with a singular theme. I make a playlist and listen to it on loop, and then I tend to draft in 12-20 hour stretches. Sometimes I’ll play a certain song over and over again while working on a certain scene, to capture the mood. I literally can’t leave the chair until a draft of a short work is complete, or I’ll lose focus. Exactly how effective this is, I’m not sure. But you know that strange feeling you often get before you go to sleep, where unrelated events or ideas turn into PROFOUND, EPIPHANIC CONNECTIONS just before you pass out? If I write for long enough, it just starts happening while I’m fully conscious, and that tends to be around the time I finish a piece . . .
Longer work is roughly the same, but its sort of a triple-pronged inception process. I tend to latch onto one theme and then hybridize it with another idea, and then I have to let it bake until I find one more concept or impression to obsess about. Then, I obsess until I feel the work is sufficiently complicated to sustain my interest for a long period of time. I think about it in the car and while walking the dog and before I sleep at night and in between classes. The drafting process is similar to short work, plus more crying, writing, calling a friend to read it aloud, deleting it, looking up emergency alternate careers in Mortuary Science or Gemology, plus 300 packs of cigarettes and more stiffness.
PM: What are you reading now?
LN: I’m reading “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine” by Barbara Creed to prep for my Film-As-Literature horror-themed class next semester. I’m also reading Doctor Sleep by Stephen King because I’m pretty interested in learning how Danny Torrance navigates his life as the adult child of an alcoholic.